Best Practices

Asking When: Ethics in the Product Development Process

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Connected blog.

Today’s generation of product builders is scrutinized more than any before them—and with good reason. As Mike Monteiro notes in a Slate interview, “designers have been running fast and free … that was fine when we were designing posters. But now design is interpersonal relationships on social media, health care, financial data traveling everywhere, the difference between verified journalism and fake news. And this is dangerous.” It’s dangerous because of its reach—as FAANG continues to acquire and dominate the market, the same few products are consumed by billions—and because products are giving shape to more aspects of peoples’ lives than ever before. And, the cherry on top of this very risky sundae is the total lack of regulation around the industry. At one point, our entire worlds—and moral codes—came to us top-down, from legal entities. No more: from the reveal of Cambridge Analytica in 2017 to incidents of self-driving cars killing pedestrians, to IBM Watson recommending unsafe and incorrect cancer treatments, the number of unchecked products that have created harm in our world as of late is staggering.

As product builders, ignorance of impact is no longer permissible. Monteiro notes in another article, “By choosing to be a designer you are choosing to impact the people who come in contact with your work, and you can either help or hurt them with your actions.” Again, another home run (although I’d strike out designer and replace it with product builders, as product managers, engineers, etc. are all as culpable). We’ve all made a decision to choose this particular profession in a high-impact industry. With that decision comes a weighty responsibility of how and what we choose to put out into the world. We can put out products that are helpful, or harmful; the burden is on us.

Of course, implementing ethics into one’s practice is easier said than done. There are a plethora of frameworks that try to deal with the how: how to be ethical, how to consider the full ramifications of what you are building. From Artefact’s Tarot Cards of Tech (a set of provocations that help builders consider consequences and opportunities of their products) to the Ethical Design Methodology, to IDEO’s “The Little Book of Design Research Ethics”, to the Ethics Canvas, to … you get the point. People see the importance of thinking about the how, but there’s less written about the when.

When can we be ethical? What are the different moments in the product development process that we can actually apply some of these frameworks to what we are building (lest “ethics” be frantically added as a last-minute Jira ticket)? Just as we figure out what type of research activities to do, or what type of validation sessions to run, we need to figure out what ethical methods and mindsets to bring to the table at what point in time.

Building an ethical toolbox for your processes

At Connected, we follow a continuous dual-track process where discovery insights feed delivery execution during the entire end-to-end product development lifecycle. During the discovery phase of a project, we naturally employ different tactics then we do in delivery; therefore, different ethical mindsets and methodologies should be employed during these different phases accordingly. Here’s a compiled (non-exhaustive!) list of what ethical mindsets and methods are available to you during these different tactics. Each reference should help you as a product builder to incorporate a sense of wellbeing, inclusion, security, privacy, accountability, and trust in your work, from the product you are building, to the people you interact with while building it:

If you’re …  problem-finding (e.g. conducting industry research)

Problem finding in an ethical way means employing a frame of mind that is totally open; one that is wary of the ambiguity effect and other cognitive biases that can color our work early on in your research. Finding sources outside of your usual repertoire can help you to be more inclusive, as can consulting people outside of your industry (can you poll an open community on a forum?). Thinking laterally and seeking research that is on the periphery of the topic you are engaging with is another great way to go about this. When actually conducting research, fact-checking by following sources on articles when available, or reverse-image searching are important habits to employ to ensure your research is accurate. There are plenty of other tools to help you conduct industry research in a way that is accountable and trustworthy:

  • Use Purdue’s guide to evaluating sources to make sure you what you are gathering is credible
  • Snopes is a fact-checking publication that uses investigative reporting to conduct an evidence-based and contextual inquiry
  • Google’s Fact Check Toolbox is another great resource if you are looking into today’s news
  • And, to gain a different perspective entirely while conducting research, use the MethodKit

If you’re … doing customer discovery (e.g. running stakeholder interviews or user context labs)

When we think about doing customer discovery, we’re dealing with a myriad of factors beyond asking if it’s OK if we record an interview. From the language we use, to the tools we employ, to our level of digital literacy vs. the stakeholders/users are all (some of the) forces at work which, in some way, need to be checked from an ethical lens. Bringing a mindset that is honest, sensitive, and respectful to those who you are interacting with is key. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of running group or one-on-one interviews, here are some tools that ensure the wellbeing of those you are interacting with:

  • When doing research with users, referencing IDEO’s “The Little Book of Design Research Ethics” is particularly helpful at a high level
  • This Ethics Canvas pushes you to consider the participants of your research from many different angles
  • The Nielsen Norman Group’s assessment tool of the maturity of your research practice provides a great jumping-off point prior to conducting interviews
  • A useful checklist that ticks off important ethical questions to be asked prior to conducting the interviews
  • On why getting informed consent matters

If you’re … doing synthesis (e.g. creating a customer profile canvas or a North Star)

Doing synthesis can be a trying activity for those involved; long days staring at a wall (or a room!) of data can be overwhelming. Keeping track of your mental wellbeing is key in this process (we should practice ethics as it relates to ourselves!), and using tools like this one, or reading up on what Vivianne Castillo has to say about self-care in UX research is important. Along the same vein, being mindful of your team members and their capacity for sense-making is vital. Beyond practicing empathy towards yourself and your team, bringing the same open mindset as mentioned above is integral to synthesis work, as well as making sure to leave time to refine your work with one of the methods below:

  • When sifting through your research, and reflecting on whether it is an accurate portrayal of your users, create an empathy map to more fully step into their shoes
  • Make sure that you are prioritizing your findings in a way that is true to your users
  • Try using the Ethical Design Methodology to refine your North Star from an ethical lens
    • This is a similar tool
  • If you are sharing highlights of your research, or synthesis at any point then adhering to a strict anonymization policy of that data is important to uphold user privacy
  • And, if quotes are part of that share-out, this article is a useful guide on how to properly use quotes in research findings

If you’re … generating concepts (e.g. running an ideation workshop with your team)

When coming up with ideas as a team, issues of moral-compass, bias, culture, experience level, and more come into play. When we think about working together, as practitioners, the language that we use, the tools we employ, the type of hierarchy our company utilizes (top-down or flat), our communication styles ( sync or async), and even the geographies that might separate us are all big forces at work that play into the individual people-ethics of product development. Baking an ethics mindset into your team from the get-go can help to get your group on the same page. And, this round-up of mindsets and methods are intended not only to help you take a more inclusive approach to ideating but also to generate concepts that have a sense of built-in accountability (e.g. future-proof):

  • When setting up a session, consider one of these methods that will give introverts/extroverts alike the opportunity to contribute
  • Run meetings with both in-person and remote collaborators entirely remotely (e.g., via Google Hangouts to level the playing field). Tools like Miro make remote collaboration that much easier!
  • Consider integrating the Tarot Cards of Tech as a post-ideation session to reflect on your concepts as you develop them
  • Alternatively, after you’ve selected a concept, run through the Ethics Canvas to forecast some of the implications of your product
    • This method is a similar one
  • If your product is AI-enabled, then IDEO’s AI Ethics Cards might be more appropriate to do post-concept selection
  • And as a rule of thumb, employing second-order thinking to evaluate any concept is the right approach

If you’re … prototyping (e.g. building out an InVision prototype)

Designing a prototype inherently requires an ethical approach; you don’t want to design out an experience that makes the concepts—or even features—that you personally like to stand out to your testers. You also need to make sure that you are collaborating with others on an equal playing field; for example, if you’re co-designing with practitioners outside of your team, working in an environment that can be cost-free is something you could suggest. Generally, there are plenty of tools out there that can help you to check the overall inclusivity of your work:

  • Softwares like Hemingway and Grammarly help to see what level the language you are using your prototype is (pro tip: aim for an 8th-grade reading level if you’re designing for a broad audience)
  • Use Apple’s tips on typographic accessibility (yes, even in your prototypes)
  • Tools like Stark can help out with contrast checkers, as well as simulate color blindness
  • If your prototype is at a higher fidelity and includes content such as images, make sure that the content is reflective of what the actual content will look like (e.g. don’t misrepresent with polished stock photography), and is actually representative of the intended user base

If you’re … validating (e.g. running user testing sessions)

During validation sessions, the mindsets and methods to employ are not dissimilar to those used in customer discovery sessions. Focusing on the wellbeing of users by being honest and open about what you are doing and why is a direct way of taking an ethical approach to your validation sessions. Remember that your participants have different levels of ability and tech literacy and that it’s your job as a product builder to be accommodating. Ensuring that there aren’t any physical barriers for your users to get to the location of the sessions if they are in-person, or potential digital barriers if you are running a session remotely. Here are some methods (and mindsets) to incorporate at this stage of the product development process:

  • IDEO has yet another ethical tool, this time, for when you are figuring out the ways in which you will conduct your testing sessions
  • When running your tests, avoid the framing effect as best you can—essentially asking your users leading questions
  • When taking notes during your sessions, verbatim notes help you to make sure that your opinions aren’t clouding what your participants are actually saying
  • These five keys to ethical design research—especially being respectful of your participant’s time and apologizing for any hiccups in your prototype—are good to keep in mind during validation

This list is just a first step in collecting what a product builder needs at their fingertips to be ethical; a toolbox for wellbeing, inclusion, security, privacy, accountability, and trust (of course, some of these ethical pillars come more heavily into play later on in the delivery phase of the product development process). By starting to repeatedly integrate these mindsets and methods into our practices, we will hopefully be able to come to a place wherein they are ingrained in our day-to-day work. Perhaps then we’ll be able to look towards the future of our industry less guiltily, and more hopefully; maybe we can start to aim to build products that are upholden to more than desirability (or viability, or feasibility) and instead, we can build with a little bit more humanity.